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COVID-19 Impact: How Digitalization Helped AEC Sector Adjust​ to Disruptions

How trends in digitalization of AEC have helped the industry adjust to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and also become better prepared to meet the pressing demands for infrastructure growth in future.

By Gavin Schrock
By Gavin Schrock

Consulting Editor | AEC

There is no doubt that the long-term trajectory of infrastructure growth will be like nothing we have ever seen before. Not just due to population growth over the next decades, but also because of substantial income growth across economies that will create the need for new or upgraded infrastructure, which is cost-effective, sustainable and smart.

The past decade has seen unparalleled infrastructure investments that were, until recently, very much on track to meet those future demands. The Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) sector has fared better than many industries during the COVID-19 pandemic, but has not been immune to its effects. For instance, after the early months of the pandemic, until which construction in the US remained relatively healthy, we are now seeing, for the first time in a decade, a substantial drop in both non-residential and residential construction. The shortfalls in Europe and Asia seem somewhat less pronounced. The outlook, while uncertain, may benefit from the growing realization that infrastructure investments can be one of the most effective ways to boost economies hit by this global crisis. In fact, some countries have already begun such programs.

The broad adoption of construction automation, machine control, rapid as-built, and backend 4D collaboration tools was well under way. But the pandemic has in some cases accelerated these upgrades | Photo credit: Gavin Schrock

The design and project management has sought to meet these challenges by migrating to more collaborative digital environments. More than just shifting meetings to Zoom, teams have adopted 4D design and construction solutions, Cloud and Internet of Things.

While there is no part of a global pandemic that should be viewed as a good thing, it is worth noting that some of the steps needed to adapt AEC to the situation will better prepare the industry to meet the demands of the global infrastructure uptick. We spoke with several subject matter experts in various AEC segments, including the providers of AEC digitalization, to understand some of the emerging trends.

EU-27, development of construction production, January-May 2020 | Courtesy: Eurostat (online data code: sts_copr_m)

Heavy civil

Machine control and machine guidance for heavy equipment has been growing steadily for decades, but the digitalization of related workflows was, in some ways, just now catching up. Further, digitalization has added to the benefits of machine control. Now, with the design and operations sides of construction ecosystems speaking more openly and freely the “language of 3D, 4D, and 5D” with the field and machine sides, the dream of the “digital site” is being realized. And with hardware for guidance systems and software for digital integration reaching new level of affordability, these efficiencies are within the reach of GC’s large and small.

A provider of ruggedized control and guidance systems for construction, mining, agriculture, marine and other high precision applications is Hemisphere GNSS. Randy Noland is Hemisphere’s Vice President of Global Sales. He has been involved in the digitalization of construction for decades, since the first machine control systems were making an impact on the industry, and he is the former Managing Editor of Machine Control magazine. “COVID-19 has definitely had an impact on the industry. Construction has kept going, with some projects put on hold for a while, but in many places, the work has continued. I am seeing some of the heavy equipment manufacturers (scaling back) production somewhat, probably for a short while, but there is a pretty strong market in used and refurbished equipment,” says Noland.

But are folks investing in guidance and control systems — new or retrofit? “We (Hemisphere) anticipate this continued growth, and even added more developers in the middle of this pandemic. We are optimistic and in it to win it and continue to invest,” emphasizes Noland.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Hemisphere has continued to announce new products and OEM solutions, and a new facility in Brisbane, Australia.

The Leica Geosystems BLK3D is a handheld measurement and mapping device that can be used to rapidly capture data to be shared remotely with the project team | Courtesy: Hexagon

Digital distancing

“We are definitely seeing things continuing,” says Andy Fontana, Technical Specialist at Leica Geosystems, part of Hexagon. He adds that there is a hesitation to cancel projects that are already under way or programmed. “What we are seeing is deliberation in a lot of choices being made for safety reasons. For instance, in hesitating to bring out of city, or out of state contractors to the site. Crews are running bare bones and often due to mandated pandemic safety requirements, are minimizing the number of people on site. That’s a big issue.”

Fontana is in the BLK Group of Leica/Hexagon, focused on scanners and spatial data capture solutions. And for the reasons he noted about minimizing the people on site, there has been an uptick in interest in such systems.

“Instead of having 70 people come into a job site, contractors can have one guy with a scanner, at various stages of the project, and all the teams can use the data,” he explains. Inspectors, project managers, estimators, owners and stakeholders can remotely navigate these photo realistic 3D models and keep track of progress, take measurements and provide feedback.

Esri has accelerated development of tools and solutions for AEC, including partnerships with firms like Autodesk, to boost geodesign, geoanalytics, and project collaboration | Courtesy: Esri

“Another shift is in who is doing the scanning. Firms used to hire out to scanning service providers to do the scan and give them the point Cloud or Revit model. Many are adapting to do scanning themselves. The ease of speed of being able to use scanners is so intuitive that you don’t need much training,” says Fontana.

Some systems like the RTC 360 do real-time scan Cloud registration, as the unit is carried from one setup to the next, and they have a “BLK” family of portable data capture systems that includes a small tripod mounted scanner (BLK360), hand-held “SLAM” style scanner (BLK2GO), a tablet style device (BLK3D) that can be used to measure and map sites, and one that can be mounted at sites to do real-time change detection (BLK247). A part of the impetus to develop these tools was to make high precision scanning and imaging affordable, easy and reliable, so that it could get into the hands of more people in project ecosystems. This was to boost the adoption of BIM and further automate AEC processes.

The design and project management has sought to meet the existing challenges by migrating to more collaborative digital environments. More than just shifting meetings to Zoom, teams have adopted 4D design and construction solutions, Cloud and Internet of Things

Necessity

Dave George, Global Account Manager for the AEC Sector for Esri, has had a long career as a “parachute guy” for surveying and construction clients for several large geospatial solution providers. His job for global customers is to come in and help them adapt process, workflow and technology solutions.

So, is there a continuation in terms of the global infrastructure uptick? “I think the trend is continuing upward, based on what I have seen. But not as fast as it should. The Asian market seems to be going faster. But overall, upticking. Obviously, COVID-19 has made it challenging, but construction is still trying to push along, and several firms, especially on the architecture and engineering side of AEC, are relatively busy and have migrated to the work-from-home (WFH) environment pretty well,” says George.

Construction, he explains, has had to make substantial concessions and changes to be able to support keeping people working and keeping infrastructure moving. George does see the US as being especially challenged, but there are signs for optimism. “A lot of firms knew they were going to go digital. This year forced their hand. People are moving in a certain direction due to necessity. Digitalization was definitely on the radar, on the roadmap, but not necessarily at a quick speed — this is pushing people to do it,” he says.

Collaboration tools like the Catalyst handheld Augmented Reality (AR) system and XR10 (with HoloLens 2) continue to be adopted at a steady rate | Photo credit: Gavin Schrock

Augmented Reality

“Jobs are mostly continuing. Many did a bit of a pause in April when they had to figure out how to proceed within the new safety constraints and how to include more of the team remotely,” says Jon Fingland, General Manager of Collaboration Solutions for Trimble. He notes that the need to collaborate more within teams is something AEC has had to learn, as increasingly there are many more partners on projects.

“In our space, we are often only one joint venture away from a whole new mix of people, partners, and systems.” Indeed, in AEC, there is no ‘green field’ where a project can be done wholly within one brand environment. Integration, interoperability and collaboration are imperatives.

While Fingland has seen the AEC industry performing well despite the challenges, he does warn about the risks of a dwindling backlogs. “New projects are not being funded and programmed as well as they should,” says Fingland. “It varies by verticals and regions, like healthcare and retail related construction signaling down, but government and infrastructure looking healthy. Even that varies; we deal with departments of transportation (DOTs), some are struggling, some are expanding. Then there are projects like data centers… going quite strong.”

“This new environment has forced a lot of things that people knew were good processes and have now taken the time to adopt them. WFH drove a lot more collaboration. So, usage of our Cloud apps is growing. Our collaboration tools like SketchUp, e-Builder, Viewpoint etc. — the online products and services — are showing large growth. There have been as much as 30% upticks in monthly usage,” adds Fingland. A recent earnings call, presented by Trimble CEO Rob Painter, noted pandemic related shortfalls but highlighted the rise in the use of these collaboration tools.

Many AEC firms used the slowdown to get their instruments calibrated and train staff in new systems and processes | Photo credit: Gavin Schrock

Another aspect where solution upgrades and adoption are helping directly with pandemic issues is better jobsite social distancing. “If we can better manage what crews are on site, know who is out there, and who is working on what tasks, we can minimize crowding. We have CrewSight, where you can put RFID tags on workers badges and those can be read automatically at gates or with handheld units anywhere on the site. Then if we use something like Viewpoint, that manages schedule, payroll, HR — a full management pullout suite. We can make sure, for instance, that we have the drywaller in one room and the tiler in another, and the painter follows them,” elaborates Fingland.

While projects are slower in some segments, the adoption of digital solutions has seen a rise, almost across the board. For instance, the oil & gas sector, despite getting hit with the dual effects of the pandemic and a soft energy market, continues to modernize. Fingland says that Trimble has seen a general large influx of orders from energy companies leveraging mixed reality tools for remote assist applications. “Especially in COVID times, they have seen them double down, a testament to the ROI they are recognizing in their digitization.”

Prepping

“One of the things we saw first, when the pandemic hit and firms initially had crews stand down to figure out how to operate in the new environment, was that they brought their surveying and construction instruments in for calibration,” says Mark Contino, Vice President of Retail for Topcon Positioning Systems. Topcon has a broad global reach in AEC, and especially construction, partnering closely with other providers of the engineering and design solutions to integrate hardware and software into complete AEC workflows. Their forward face is the recently formed network of Topcon Solutions Stores that are not only the outlets for sales of their gear, but for support, repair and calibration, and training centers — for Autodesk AEC products in particular.

In addition to the uptick in customers getting gear calibrated and ready for the “post pause” resumption of the infrastructure design and construction, Contino notes that many are jumping directly into 4D collaborative suites.

Conco is a whole package concrete contractor for large commercial construction operating in multiple western US states. Meredith Baxter, Detailing Manager with Conco, says the digitalization of their operations happened just at the cusp of the pandemic, to keep rolling while sending everyone home. “The transition to this mode happened suddenly and it was badly needed — coordinating while distancing. There was very little disruption to our workflows. We may not work face to face, but we’ve been able to get through the nuts and bolts of modeling through BIM 360 now,” says Baxter.

Collaboration tools like SYNCHRO are 4D critical path method scheduling tools that leverage directly from the BIM model | Courtesy: Bentley Systems

Prior attempts to work on collaborative platforms had left Baxter and her colleagues skeptical. “We would often have to wait 20 to 30 minutes for models to sync. When we were given a demo of BIM 360 and saw that the models loaded in less than a minute, we needed no other convincing and moved forward,” she recalls. The new environment also enables Conco’s field crews to be able to pull the model directly from the Cloud. Baxter says that even after there is a return to offices, Conco is now fully prepared to work in the collaborative Cloud environment on all projects moving forward.

Another aspect where solution upgrades and adoption are helping directly with pandemic issues is better jobsite social distancing

Synchronization

“We have heard from our customers that the pause was an opportunity for better planning, to reassess their scenarios and refine schedules,” says Ryan Posnikoff, Bentley’s Director of Construction Services for the Americas. “They want to see how they can find optimizations for when they will be given the go ahead to move forward on construction projects.”

“I think people in general had an awakening on how we work and communicate — particularly office-based jobs that are changing indefinitely, if not forever. WFH means less people at the office, less people to inspect on sites. And we have seen a lot of synchronization along these lines; reassessing planning, leveraging 4D across distributed teams, across town, across multiple cities and countries,” he says.

“A bigger nut to crack and this pandemic has kind of forced (firms to deal with) is in respects to many workers and teams physically on site who have been a bit adverse to going away from paper-based workflows. That has always been part of the construction industry, but now there is a need to adopt greater collaborative tech,” says Posnikoff.

Among the larger project ecosystem, there is tremendous interest in getting richer, better and more timely information. “How do I get the 4D model to the field, into the hands of the team? How do I get the documentation they require and be able to have these collaborative inspections, reports coming in from the field back into the office? There is definitely an uptick in interest of how to get there,” he adds.

So, what solution has generated the most interest for Bentley? “SYNCHRO is a brand portfolio of our new construction project management and scheduling offerings. 4D critical path method scheduling tools that leverage directly from a model. It can be a Bentley iModel, or it can be other sources. Doing full scheduling directly tied to your BIM model. Now, rather than focusing on dates and Gantt charts, you get the full context of the design in a particular snapshot in time or viewing progress and proposed work in a time series — that is pretty powerful,” explains Posnikoff.

3D modelling was decidedly revolutionary in engineering and construction. “In today’s terminology, the Digital Twin, there is a timeframe between the design and the asset completion and operation phase where the as-built conditions can change almost hourly,” says Posnikoff. This is where 4D can really be enabled. Recognizing that the best way to accommodate near-real-time scheduling and updates is in a digital environment, like the Cloud, makes the decision to move ahead in upgrading collaborative tools and skills — especially in this current crisis that calls for it — very compelling.

Inevitable

There will be recovery of the AEC industry — it is an imperative. The global demands for infrastructure will not relent. Despite pauses and slowdown, when things get back to full steam, there may even be a pandemic backlog that will also need to be addressed.

Sitting back and assuming (or wishing) that this crisis will simply go away, and we can just go on business as usually, could be a short sighted (and callous) view. Decisive actions are needed to keep the engine of AEC running, and to tune it up for the long road ahead.

There is no way that the future demand for infrastructure can be met with legacy tools and processes. If the pandemic has pushed for further digitalization of AEC, then we can take solace in the long-term benefits those changes can yield.